March 11th, 2016
March 10 Day 10 High Camp to Muktinath
A long cold night — the beds had huge blankets stuffed with something lumpy, heavy and hard like kapok, though they were absolutely necessary as it had to be around 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the room. Obviously I didn’t sleep well because of the temperature but also because it is difficult to sleep well at high altitude. We were all up at 5:30 to start the trek over Thorung La which at 17769′ is higher than any peak in the USA’s lower 48. Slow and steady was what was required and as we got higher the steps were almost a shuffle, like the figures in Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I did not have proper gloves, coat, or hat, so I was very cold until the sun got up high. My sense of the Annapurna Circuit is as a circumambulation of the massif, but most the the crowd I find myself among see this particular pass as something to be conquered, more of that bucket list stupidity. It was rigorous, both up and down, and I was pleased to cross, but was more pleased to arrive at a warmer place where the conversation could shift to the rest of the trek. As we crossed in the morning, the wind had not yet picked up, so the only sound was the squeaking of the dry, crystalline snow beneath feet, and a strange creaking that came as the trekking poles shifted position during a stride. It was an eerie yet rhythmic sound that carried me up the steep. A quick moment at the top posing for pictures as if it were Katahdin and I was standing on a sign instead of in front of a huge mass of prayer flags, then a long descent to Muktinath for a warm shower that turned out to be cold, and an afternoon sitting on a warm deck in the sun relaxing and feeling grateful that part of the circuit was now behind me. The streets of Muktinath are lined with people selling woolen hats, slippers, and scarves. The man in the booth just across the street from my decktop perch was praying softly all afternoon: om mani padme hum. High above on a steep hill were three white horses playing games. That evening we went to the famous Bob Marley cafe for an incredible yak steak and “Himalayan Sunrise” cocktails (vodka and local juices). There we saw Kris and her porter (wonderful man who always laughs and embraces me when we meet) along with an Israeli couple we met at Lake Tilicho, and Marty, a Los Angeles native we have encountered most of the trip. A number of us sat by a large open fire talking quietly as the evening descended.
T. Hugh Crawford
March 10th, 2016
March 9 Day 9 Thorung Phedi to High Camp
My room was 20 degrees F this morning, so maybe it is time to explain the guest houses on the circuit. Most are built of stone, many are three stories, with the rooms opening out onto wooden galleries. The rooms are not heated, usually they have wood or concrete floors that are sometimes swept. The bunks have thin mattresses that remind me of camp, and in higher altitudes they also have large blankets of varying cleanliness. The beds have linens but they do not change them– carrying a sleeping bag is a good idea. Usually the toilet is down the gallery and it the usual porcelain footprint over a hole. You flush with a bucket of water. The kitchens are often on the second floor, very dark, low and covered with soot as they usually cook on wood stoves. All hotels have a large dining area, usually with benches or plain chairs and bare tables (though some are covered with rugs). Those rooms have a lot of windows, though like the ones in the rooms, they are single paned wood sashes, usually with a lot of air blowing through. The windows tend to be covered with stickers advertising various trekking agencies and the like. People tend to gather in these big common rooms though they are also unheated and usually freezing until late afternoon when they light the stove for a few hours. The higher the altitude, the lower the buildings tend to be, and the less heat as there is less wood and animal dung, and of course higher altitudes are also much colder. I’m looking forward to crossing Thorung pass and heading back down to warmer altitudes. Spent the morning at Base Camp Hotel talking to Kumar and Kit and watching last night’s snow melt. The trekkers who had stayed one town downhill started rolling in mid-morning, many familiar faces. Will, Kyle, and I left about noon for a short hour’s hike up to High Camp, which gave us another 500 meters acclimatization before crossing Thorung La tomorrow. A long cold afternoon in the common room with, at 4:00, a press of people huddled around a small, smoky woodstove. Early dinner and early to bed just to get warm. Also very tired of the lengthy, detailed discussions of how to get over a 5400 meter pass without suffering from altitude sickness. The height is making me dizzy, tired, and cold, but I will be glad to be back to quiet trekking away from such anxiety.
Milarepa seems appropriate today:
From the Songs of Milarepa:
Cool mountain water
Heals the body’s ills
It only the grouse and mountain
Birds can reach it
Beasts of the valley have no
Chance to drink it
March 10th, 2016
March 8 Day 8 Blue Sheep Hotel to Thorung Phedi
Didn’t see any blue sheep at the Blue Sheep Hotel. I kept thinking of Peter Matthiesson’s Snow Leopard and their search for blue sheep in the Dolpo region. All I saw were a lot of yaks on the high pastures. Today was supposed to be a short, relatively high but level trek over to Yak Karka. Still hiking with Will and Kyle and regularly bumping into other trekkers I have met on the trail. As we hiked out of the Tilicho valley, even though we more or less kept the same altitude, the snow began to disappear and we slowly ended up in a birch forest. I think it has more to do with the amount of sunlight in this part than with altitude. All the way down the valley the eagles circled, riding the thermals. I watched a pair flying closely together in perfect coordination, one shadowing the other, feeling the movement of the air between them. It was a magical dance between bird, bird and air. One flew directly overhead and I could hear the sound of the air as it ran through its feathers, something I’ve never heard. On the way down to the river, the birch thickened though still not forest-like. They had a twisted, tortured look’ and are shedding bark –reminded me of home. Getting to Yak Karka at noon, we decided to press on after lunch to Thorung Phedi, another 5 km and a higher altitude. Tomorrow will then be just a short hike up to High Camp for final acclimatization and a rest day. The Base Camp Hotel in Phedi (not at the High Camp) is a great guest house. The proprietors, a Nepali musician with long dreadlocks and a generous personality and his partner, a woman from South Africa — Kumar and Kit– were a lot of fun, good conversation. By 5:00 they built a dung fire in the woodstove and we all gathered around. Some young Nepalis on the circuit whom we had met yesterday, a Dutchman from Zwolle just finishing a three month teaching gig, and the British and Dutch pair we had met at the lake. Kumar played the guitar to the music on the stereo, while we all kept warm within the circle of heat made by the stove and the snow swirled down outside. The younger Dutchman was also a musician, so they broke out several guitars and played around the stove for the rest of the evening.
T. Hugh Crawford
March 10th, 2016
March 7 Day 7 Tilicho Base Camp up to Tilicho Lake then to Blue Sheep Hotel
The room in the Hotel Moonlight was very cold, but they had huge blankets which, along with my down bag, kept everything but my nose warm. When I went to bed, it was fully misted over and the snow was coming down. In the middle of the night, I went outside to piss. The weather had cleared and the stars were innumerable. In the morning, I got up with Kyle and Will, had “rice pudding” for breakfast (rice, milk, sugar), and off we set, going from 4150 m to 5200 m on our way up to Tilicho Lake (one of the highest lakes in the world). Down where we started there was about an inch of snow and the flowing stream was partially frozen. Right away we were climbing hard– it was one of those crystalline days much like I had in the Richmond Range in New Zealand. The snow had cleared all the dust and moisture from the air, so the ridges, rocks, glaciers all stood out with stark shadows. It took almost three hours to reach the lake even though it was only about 5 km. We were walking slowly because of altitude gain but also because we were trekking into high mountains with blue-green glaciers — more blue than green– and occasionally a piece would break off and the avalanche would start. Near the top, a large chunk rumbled and soon a river of snow flowed and spread down the mountainside, hitting the valley and bursting into a cloud which swept across the trail. Some people in front of us started running back. Even though there was a large valley between us, it seemed as if it would come all the way to our ridge. The last kilometer was through a flat area with the snow about 8 inches, though the trail was packed tight. The avalanche cloud crossed and recrossed the valley, so when we got to the lake turning point, a sudden rush of snow and mist enveloped and soaked us (it melted on contact). I was glad I had on my wind shell–quickly pulled up my hood and ducked against the wind. It soon settled, and I took in the view, remembering Maurice Herzog’s description of leading the 1950 expedition across this frozen lake on their way to the summit of Annapurna. The hike down was fast, and by lunchtime we were back at base camp having Dal Bhat. The camp is an odd spot as it is completely isolated– no roads in–and, unlike the previous villages, there is no indigenous economy–no gardens or animals. In many ways, it resembles an outpost in a Star Wars movie. Isolated but full of people. After lunch we made our way across many scree fields back the trail to the Blue Sheep Hotel which put us in a good position to get back onto the Annapurna circuit in prep for the Thorung Pass. Another cold evening huddled around the wood stove with the hotel dining area and an early night to sleep.
T. Hugh Crawford
March 10th, 2016
March 6 Day 6 Manang to Lake Tilicho Base Camp
At 7:15 the chocolate pastries came out of the oven and I was there for the first one, along with a cappuccino which made for a decidedly cosmopolitan breakfast. It also led to an early start. Had 15 km with a fair amount of altitude gain, so thought I better head out early, but while lingering over my coffee I watched as the Manang locals going off to work, many carrying the now familiar back baskets equipped with shoulder straps and the tump (forehead) band. They carry everything in them– firewood, tools, compost–wonderfully utilitarian objects in a place where everyone must always be involved with moving goods from here to there. The woodcutters could bring a load in with a truck, but often there are no trucks, so they each shoulder a large log (not in the basket) and carry them where they need to be. I found my way out of the town through a series of gates and twisting alleys. Everyone I passed was praying, some fingering prayer beads. Soon I was on my way climbing to a path that leads up the river eventually to the lake. Parts were narrow and steep, some were on a narrow dirt road. Just outside Khangsar a man was driving cattle down the path and greeted me with a loud “namaste.” He had a smile missing some teeth but full of affection and asked if I was walking to the base camp. I replied yes. He pointed toward the village and said “tea,” then pointed to his red coat. I looked at the town and could see a red hotel building. We both laughed at our effective communication, and I walked on, disappointed to find the hotel closed. My march continued up some steep slopes then past an old closed gompa. Most of it was corrugated steel, but it was strangely beautiful, fading yellow and red paint. Just past were two large closed hotels near a cliff and two magnificent birds. Too big for hawks, at first I thought they were vultures, but one swooped down and I could see clearly its feathered head and hooked bill. When one landed I saw its feathered legs– they were eagles. The latter part of the trail crossed a series of scree fields which reminded me of trekking on New Zealand’s South Island. Much of it was narrow and loose but I was still confident from my long trek. Nearing base camp I hiked with Kyle and Will, an American and an Englishman, for the last stretch. There were two hotels. I had lunch in one and tried to get a room, but because there was a large influx of trekkers the proprietor wanted to overcharge me for a bad room. When I protested he just laughed. I ended up joining Kyle and Will in their three bunk room and spent the afternoon in the dining room talking with them as the temperature dropped and it started to snow. We wondered if the trail will be open tomorrow but the locals say it should not be a problem. My plan is to hike up to the lake then head back to the one hotel that was open back past the scree fields which should put me in a good position to make it to Yak Karka the following day. Finally they made a fire in the wood stove to heat the dining room. In went some rotten chunks squirted with kerosene which did not really catch. He reached into a large bag for dried cow dung which soon warmed the room, a circle of people around the stove: seven Nepalis, one Chinese, three Americans, one Belgian, two Brits, and a Dutchman– a veritable UN.
T. Hugh Crawford
March 10th, 2016
March 4 Day 4 Upper Pisang to Ngawal
In the middle of the night I heard a roar. My first thought was thunder, but the sky was clear. It was an avalanche in the glacier bowl on Annapurna II. It faces Upper Pisang across the river valley and so is a natural amplifier. I rolled over and slept until 6:00 when the whole crew started stomping around. Plain wood floors and walls make for noisy neighbors. Frost was on the deck on the way to the dining area. A pot of black tea and some oatmeal started the day and soon I was making my way down the trail. A cold morning– and they will become increasingly cold. A little concerned that my foul weather gear won’t be enough, but I’ll just put on everything I have when crossing Thorung La. No road walking today as the path is high above the river and the road is on the other side. It is a day to get serious about acclimatization, so on the steep grades I do a lot of short rest stops to get breath. Each day’s distance will be quite short until I get over the pass. There is a lot of anxiety amongst the trekkers here about altitude edema– pretty much a constant in conversation. All I can do is to inventory my physical state constantly, rest a lot, and be willing to turn back if necessary. Although much of Nepal is Buddhist, the deeper into the mountains I go, the more mani walls, shrines, stupas, and gompas I pass. Yesterday I saw trimmed ends of juniper drying on the hotel deck looking almost as if they were making wreaths. In the mornings they make a small fire on a pedestal, usually near a mani wall, with the smoky juniper twigs in order to wake up Buddha. Most of the morning was on a high path looking back at Annapurna II while looking toward Annapurna III. After crossing a long swinging bridge I began to make my way up a long incline, probably gaining about 400 meters of altitude in a short stretch. At about the third switchback I heard that same rumble and turned to see a wall of snow and ice crashing down the Annapurna glacier bowl. It turned into a cloud filling the whole area, then settled back down covering the rocks that had previously been exposed. The sun was shining brightly through it all– no words for that scene. Not long after I passed men driving two horses that were wearing brightly colored saddles, would love to have seen them riding across the countryside. The rest of the morning was a long climb involving a lot of stopping to breath. This is perhaps an obvious observation, but I understand better one of the reasons Buddhist meditation practices focus on the breath. Here where the religion began, focusing on your breathing is a away of life. Even the guides who walk these mountains constantly have to acclimatize. On the ascents, you can see their careful breathing patterns, something I’ve never been so aware of. Ngawal also is home to a large gompa though older than the one at Upper Pisang. The complex had several older buildings including one housing a large colorful prayer wheel, and a mani wall that had very old, cloth covered prayer wheels. You could see the handwritten script of the prayers on the tatters, beautiful. Later dined on yak Dal Bhat, then early to bed.
T. Hugh Crawford